Media Relations Helps Nonprofits Build Awareness
By Nancy Schwartz

Nancy Schwartz
Nancy Schwartz
Nonprofit organizations, particularly those on the smaller side, need every advantage they can get. One communications strategy that can work well to advance awareness is media relations.

Strong media relations can provide that significant advantage by yielding heightened visibility, new collaborations, new financial support, and increased clout.

Media relations planning—pinpointing your organization’s goals, identifying what media contacts are most likely to advance them, and building a program to make that happen—is an investment of time that is well worth the effort.

However, with all the tasks facing staffs at nonprofits, media planning too often is postponed because people don’t know where to start or don’t feel they have the time. But once you buckle down to this media planning process, it’s extremely doable. Depending on the time you can dedicate, the process can be executed in a variety of ways. For example:
  • If time is extremely tight, allocate two hours weekly to this process. It will take longer but it will get done.
  • If you have a bit more time, spend six hours a week on this process. You’ll be done in two weeks (maximum), assuming you have a colleague or freelancer doing the research.
The staff or consultant primarily responsible for media relations should own this process and do the initial strategic thinking. That person, or another team member, can be assigned to research (e.g. to develop your press list).

Getting Started

  • Begin by reviewing this list.
  • Next, dive into the low-hanging fruit (#1-5 below). You should be able to complete these tasks without additional research. Run by colleagues to ensure you are on target.
  • Assign an intern or assistant (you could even hire a virtual assistant for this) for tasks #6 and #7 to start researching key media to follow, and to draft a top-ten press list.
  • Take these findings, finalize the press list, and address the balance of the planning tasks (#8-11).
  • Review the draft plan with key colleagues, and revise as needed.

11 Steps to Media Planning Success

1. Estimate what you can invest—in terms of time and budget—in building your media relations program.

2. Set goals. What are your three main program goals? How can media relations be used to achieve these goals in these three ways:
  • Build awareness.
  • Shift opinion.
  • Motivate action.
3. Define realistic objectives, both output and outcome:
  • What do you envision your media work will generate?
  • These objectives serve as the measures you’ll track to evaluate your success.
4. Identify three (or fewer) primary target audiences:
  • Define each group’s connection to each issue or story; what you want them to do; what is important to them; and what they read, watch, and listen to.
  • Audience definition shapes your key messages and press list.
5. Tell your story. Pinpoint the key messages you’re trying to communicate:
  • Try to distill your message into a 25-word (maximum) statement that will get the point across. Add supporting messages of one to two sentences each, maximum.
  • Make sure these messages are integrated into all of your communications.
  • Mixed messages are confusing. Consistency ensures that your points are heard and recognized and likely to be repeated.
6. Build your media database/press list. Identify key media covering your issues, themes, and geographies via these strategies:
  • Capture information on reporters who contact or cover your organization (log conversations/emails with media so you have this information).
  • Find related stories via Google news, noting sources and reporter’s names.
  • Exchange media contact lists with your colleague organizations.
7. Read, watch, and listen to these media over a month or so to pinpoint your top-ten press list.

8. Identify the best way to get journalists to cover your story, as each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages:
  • Through news releases
  • Personal visits to reporters
  • On-air interviews
9. Craft the timetable:
  • Consider external events, editorial calendars, and date-based news hooks.
  • Organize key media outreach efforts chronologically and prioritize, being realistic about what you can accomplish.
10. Define the work plan, and roles and responsibilities:
  • Remember, everyone on your staff and your external supporters are communicators.
  • Give them what they need to spread the word directly as well as via media contacts.
11. Track, measure, and fine-tune (ongoing, forever):
  • Log all contacts with the media.
  • Make the log easily accessible to all. You never know who might have to field an incoming media call.
Nancy Schwartz is principal of Nancy Schwartz & Company, a media and communications company serving nonprofits. She can be reached at or 973-762-0079.